Sunday, 26 May 2013

Trinity Sunday: "Between Earth’s riot and the bottomless universe"

Christian faith started with experience - raw, dramatic experience; the experience of those who knew Jesus in the flesh and felt that they were meeting God in him; the experience of those who watched him die, but later met him him apparently alive again; the experience of those who felt God’s presence on the Day of Pentecost , a presence they called the Holy Spirit.  These experiences were utterly real – experiences always are, by definition. We might not understand them. We might find them extraordinary. We might be sceptical or downright disbelieving of the way they interpreted those experiences. But for those who were there, whatever it was that happened, really happened.

The problem with experience, though, is that it is often very hard to put into words. We can never fully describe our experiences to someone else. We have to shrink them to fit. It’s a bit like being in love. You know it when you feel it. It can change your life. But try to describe it and you’ll probably be reduced to syrupy clichés, or metaphors that never quite capture the absolutely unique relationship that you’ve found.

That’s what the early Christians discovered when they tried to talk about the experiences they’d had, first in Jesus and then through the Holy Spirit. No matter how clever they were, they were never going to be able to sum it up in words – you had to have been there to know what they had known, to feel what they had felt.  

To add to their problems, they were trying to explain all this in translation, in a language that wasn’t the first language for most of them. Jesus and the first disciples spoke Aramaic, but the international language of the time, especially when it came to discussing ideas, was Greek. If you wanted to talk theology or philosophy, and be taken seriously by educated people, then this was the language you needed to use. That’s why the New Testament is written in Greek.

But translation is always imprecise. Words don’t necessarily have an exact equivalent in another tongue. And even if they seem to, people from different cultures don’t always mean the same thing by them.

The most basic theological word – God – is a case in point. The Jewish idea of God, the God we see in the Old Testament, the idea of God which Jesus and the first disciples would have had in their minds , is very different from the idea of God which  someone growing up steeped in Greek philosophy would have had. The God of the Old Testament is passionate, personal, anxious, angry, sometimes even changing his mind. Above all he is involved with the people he has created. And he loves them. Greek philosophers understood God very differently. There were many different schools of thought but the dominant idea at this point was of a perfect, serene being, detached and distant, unchangeable and unmoved,  with no particular interest in individuals at all.   So when native Israelites tried to discuss theology with native Greek speakers, there were bound to be problems. They were starting from completely different places, and that caused all sorts of confusions.

If God was an unchangeable, perfect, complete, serene being in a distant heaven, how could he be present in a carpenter from Galilee, thought the Greeks? How could he learn and grow as a child? How could he suffer and die? How could he move through the world inspiring and enthusing people? How could he be part of our messy reality at all?  And how were the experiences of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit related to each other?

And that brings us to the feast we are celebrating today, Trinity Sunday. You won’t find the word “Trinity” in the Bible at all. The first record of its use is in the late second century, in the writings of a Christian leader called Tertullian who came from the North African city of Carthage. He was one of those early theologians struggling to talk about an essentially Jewish faith in a Greek philosophical framework, and not always succeeding. You’ll probably be relieved to hear I’, going to spare you the details of his thinking, but suffice it to say that not everyone agreed with the answers he came up with, and furious arguments broke out. Those arguments rumbled on for centuries. They were often bitter and divisive - and largely pointless, because none of us can ever prove anything about God one way or another. In the end the position you took on the Trinity became more about establishing which of the warring Christian groups you were part of than it was about what you genuinely thought or believed, with all sides declaring that those who disagreed with them were heretics of course.

That’s a great pity, because ironically, the divisions that were caused by these arguments destroyed the very thing that the first Christians had wanted to celebrate when they talked about God as Trinity, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I began by saying that Christian faith started with experience, and the essence of that experience was the discovery of a new sense of wholeness and reconciliation. The first disciples felt that God had come close to them in Jesus. Heaven had been born on earth, and earth was lifted to heaven.  “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” Paul proclaimed in our second reading. The things that had made them feel cut off from him – the rules and rituals which put a fence around him, their own sense of failure or guilt, the things they had done or the things that had happened to them – these were swept away. God was with them in Jesus, sharing their lives, touching those who had thought they were untouchable, who’d been told they should keep their distance, that they weren’t fit to enter God’s presence. “Nonsense!” said God, in the person of Jesus. “Look, here I am sitting down to eat with you, travelling the road with you, laughing and crying with you, sharing the good times and  the bad, enduring the worst that human beings can do to one another.”

As they took that message out into the world, they found that God was with them in one another too. “The fruit of the Spirit is love …” said Paul. They were drawn together across the divides of their society – remember all those languages they miraculously spoke on the Day of Pentecost. Jew and Gentile, men and women, slave and free were united in one body. They didn’t always get it right, but at least they tried to love each other, inspired by the Spirit, and to live as equals,  a radical thing to do in their stratified and divided world, where great gulfs separated rich from poor and powerful from powerless.

Their experience of God was all about the uniting of things and of people that had once been fragmented. “All that the Father has is mine” says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Elsewhere in this same conversation with his disciples he talks about the Father abiding in him and he in the Father, his followers abiding in him and he in them. He uses the image of a vine. We are all grafted into it, he says, brought together in love. Everything is held together in God’s hands, he was trying to say, no matter how we try to push away the things we would rather not own or be part of. God is woven into every person, every moment, every event – even the darkest of times and places – and yet he isn’t polluted, diminished or divided by it.

That was a compelling message then, and it’s just as compelling and important now. My guess is that fragmentation is a part of the lives of most of us here this morning. We often feel as if we are coming to pieces, only just about holding things together with string and sellotape and good luck… Our attention is divided, pulled apart by the needs of children, elderly parents, friends and neighbours, the demands of employers, the responsibilities we have taken on, or had thrust upon us. We flit from one thing to another, channel hopping on the television, checking the texts and emails, unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes, and never really feeling we can reflect or go deeply into anything.

We might find there are parts of ourselves we have deliberately tried to cut off and leave behind too – the memories of failure, pain, shame, guilt, weaknesses we can’t seem conquer. “I don’t know what got into me”, we say, as if the things we hate about ourselves are really nothing to do with us. We hope if we ignore them they’ll go away.

Many people feel they are living life in bits and pieces, and that at any moment they might come flying apart.

If ever there was an age which needed that message of wholeness which the Trinity proclaims it is this one.  If ever there were people who needed to hear that God is with us in all things and all places, woven into the whole of our lives, indivisible, gathering together all that feels so scattered, then it is surely us.

The southwest corner of Africa, from space.
Over the last month or so, you might, like me, have been following the messages which Commander ChrisHadfield has been sending from the International Space Station. Just before he came back to Earth last week he made the news with his rendition from space of a song by David Bowie. For months before that, though, he’d been sending back news of everyday life on the Space Station, and glorious pictures of the Earth from space too. People have been sending him questions as well, and one person spoke for many when he asked “what is it like to do a space walk?” Chris Hadfield’s answer, quite unwittingly, caught  the essence of the message of the Trinity. You have to imagine him, floating in space, with Earth shining below him and the blackness of space beyond, as you hear it. He said this… “It is the most magnificent experience, hanging onto all of humanity with one hand, between Earth’s riot and the bottomless universe.” Earth’s riot and the bottomless universe… That says it for me. To believe in the Trinity is to believe in a God who holds the whole of it in his hands – the riot and the bottomless universe - and who holds the whole of me in his hands, too - even the bits I’m not so sure of, and who loves it all.


And for those who want a more thorough insight into the complexities of talking about the Trinity, I can't resist putting in a link to this video...

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